A Tale as Old as Time: ‘Beauty and the Beast’ Producers Todd Lieberman and David Hoberman on Disney’s Latest Live-Action Fairy Tale
No one fights like Gaston, but no one produces like Todd Lieberman and David Hoberman. Partners in the production company Mandeville Films, which Hoberman founded in 1995, they have an exclusive first-look deal with Disney. Their new film is the highly anticipated Beauty and the Beast live-action remake starring Emma Watson. Hoberman and Lieberman spoke to Boxoffice about working with 200 extras, the challenges of experimenting while remaining true to the 1991 original, and updating the iconic main character Belle to appeal to more modern sensibilities.
David, I read that you said this was one of your most challenging and complicated films to date. What were some of the biggest challenges involved with producing this film?
David Hoberman: I think the amount of CGI work and complexity involved, because we wanted to do everything photo-realistically. We were animating inanimate objects. Secondarily, the Beast was an extraordinary challenge, though it turned out fantastically. We were able to get all the nuances of the facial performance [by Dan Stevens, who portrays the Beast]. And the fact that we had only five stages that all had to be taken down and doubled again. So we would shoot out one set, then we’d have to take it down, build another set, and build another set while we were doing that because we didn’t have 10 stages. Then the complexity of it, with 200 extras dancing and singing for the opening number—a lot of interdisciplinary things working simultaneously.
You did a really long pre-production in which you pre-visualized the whole movie on the computer before the cameras even rolled. Why did you decide to take that approach, and what did that add to the film?
Hoberman: I think most CGI films today are pretty well thought out. With us, 80 percent of the movie is dealing with humans and inanimate objects. So it was important, in terms of blocking. When you’re on the set, you should know exactly what you want to shoot and where each character is going to be, because the actors are going to be acting against a tennis ball being held up on a stick or something! So you can’t just get on a stage and sort of wing it.
How important was it to you to remain faithful to the 1991 original? How much were you willing to experiment with or change?
Todd Lieberman: Obviously, the original movie is such a classic and extremely beloved. So it’s that fine balance between not ruining something that’s already so great, yet giving audiences something additional to make sure there’s a new reason, beyond just the technology and live-action characters, to go see it. I feel like we’ve accomplished that quite well. There are three new songs, which are all gorgeous, written by Alan Menken [composer for the original film] and Tim Rice [lyricist for the Broadway musical]. Then there were additional things added to the story that the animated one didn’t touch upon, like some backstory for Belle’s character and an additional “three-dimensionalizing” of some of the characters. It’s a tricky balance, but I think we’ve accomplished it. Hopefully the audience agrees.
Hoberman: The household staff, the animated characters, they have their own story now. I don’t want to ruin it for you.
Lieberman: We added some backstory with Belle’s family; we added some backstory with Beast’s family. So there are emotional touchstones that we address that weren’t necessarily in the animated film.
And Belle is now an inventor, like her father. Who came up with that idea?
Hoberman: Everybody contributed to it. The writers contributed to it, Emma [Watson] contributed to it, we contributed to it, [director] Bill [Condon] contributed to it. We spent a lot of time on Belle, trying to make her as modern as possible. She knows how to ride a horse, she knows how to shoot, she knows how to invent something, she knows how to fight, she knows how to read and teach. We wanted to give her modern qualities that are aspirational to young girls today. Everybody, including Emma, made a contribution to that.
Did you take inspiration from other recent live-action re-imaginings of Disney classics, like The Jungle Book, Cinderella, and Maleficent [a retelling of Sleeping Beauty]?
Hoberman: We tried to make the best film we possibly could. We were doing our own thing.
Lieberman: When we were in prep, Disney screened Cinderella for us. We watched that movie and sat there in awe of how beautiful it was. We said, “We have to make sure our movie looks beautiful.”
Hoberman: You can tell by the pedigree of our wardrobe, our set design, our set constructions, our actors. It was really important to get Kevin Kline [as Maurice], because it signaled the kind of level and class of movie we wanted to make. It was really important for us to get Emma Thompson [as Mrs. Potts], Ian McKellen [as Cogsworth], Ewan McGregor [as Lumière]. We were really trying to put this on an elevated level, as best as we possibly could, in every area.
Lieberman: The good news is that Disney likes to do that with all of their movies. We’re no different in that way. They’re always aspiring for A-plus across the board, and we were aspiring for the same.
You just mentioned casting major actors. Probably the most important casting decision you made was Emma Watson as Belle. Did you have any worries about casting the portrayer of such an iconic franchise character in another iconic role?
Hoberman: Not really. She has had an interest in playing Belle. She was cast in Warner Bros.’ Beauty and the Beast [with Guillermo del Toro attached to direct]. When that fell apart, she became available around the time we started looking. Her interest in it and our interest in her, and Alan Horn [chairman of Walt Disney Studios], who lived with her through all the Harry Potter movies, it was just a perfect fit.
Lieberman: There really weren’t any other contenders, basically. Just her.
Talk about the music. The soundtrack features songs from John Legend, Josh Groban, and Ariana Grande. What do you think that added to the film?
Hoberman: John Legend and Ariana Grande perform Beauty and the Beast [the title track], Celine Dion performs one of the new songs, and Josh Groban performs the Beast’s ballad—those are all performers who only perform in the end credits. During the body of the film, Emma Thompson sings the title song and Dan Stevens sings the Beast’s ballad. All the characters have days in the sun, because it’s about them. Our characters sing in the movie, and those performers sing in the end credits. It’s worth giving credit to Mitchell Leib, one of the people who run Disney Music, who in the beginning was such a giant proponent. He kept saying, “We have one of the single greatest scores of all time, and we’re going to deliver the greatest talent.” A lot of this was his influence, like getting Celine back.
What, if anything, changed during post-production or based on screenings? I understand the special effects took a while.
Hoberman: Todd and I have done a lot of films with CGI work—whenever you have dogs or inanimate objects, it keeps changing as you fine-tune it in post-production. The editorial process was not that long. Getting all the characters to do what we wanted them to do in CGI, and trying to perfect the look as best as we possibly could, that’s really what takes the year and a half of post—all the technical aspects.
AT THE MOVIES
Lieberman: It’s the very first movie I ever saw in the movie theater, which was The Champ. [The 1979 family sports film has been called one of the saddest movies ever made.] My parents took me when I was six years old, not exactly understanding the emotions but being very sad. From that moment, I realized how film can move people emotionally. That drove me forward wanting to tell stories, even at that young age.
Hoberman: I have to choose between two. The first was my first moviegoing experience. I go a little further back than Todd! [Laughs.] The Seven Voyages of Sinbad  at Radio City Music Hall in New York City blew my mind as a kid. The second was one of the first times I was involved in a movie, [1988’s] Beaches. I was a young executive at the time. Sitting in that theater with a test audience, watching and listening to the crying and the sniffles and the tissues being brought out, was a moment for me. Oh my God, look at what we can do. We can make people laugh, we can make people cry. It was an extraordinary experience as an executive and a filmmaker.
AT THE CONCESSIONS STAND
Hoberman: [Laughs.] Popcorn. No butter, a little bit of salt, and a bottle of water. If I’m being really naughty, it will be Reese’s Pieces and a Diet Coke. When I was an executive, I took over Hollywood Pictures as well as Touchstone and Disney, so I had three or four previews a week. I survived on popcorn! Let me tell you a funny story: So I’m off to London this past Sunday. I told my kids that I’ll go to a theater and get a bag of popcorn to take with me on the plane. And I did! I didn’t even go see a movie.